Bank, workers invest in community

By John Larrabee
Contributing Writer
For three months Alysha Brock skipped her job as a business analyst at Citizens Bank in Providence and instead did volunteer work for a nonprofit after-school program in Woonsocket, yet she never missed a paycheck. More

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Bank, workers invest in community

SATISFYING A NEED: Because summer slows down donations to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, Citizens Bank created a partnership with the Pawtucket Red Sox and Cox Communications that has yielded $500,000 for the food bank in the last six years. Above, Kathy O’Donnell, senior vice president at the bank, left, talks with Lisa Roth Blackman, chief philanthropy officer at the food bank.
By John Larrabee
Contributing Writer
Posted 11/25/13

For three months Alysha Brock skipped her job as a business analyst at Citizens Bank in Providence and instead did volunteer work for a nonprofit after-school program in Woonsocket, yet she never missed a paycheck.

Citizens picked up the tab for her work through its Community Service Sabbatical program, which allows employees to take a 12-week leave to help a worthwhile organization, all on the bank’s dime. Brock used that time to lend her business expertise to RiverzEdge Arts Project, which offers art classes to young people in hardscrabble city neighborhoods.

“I was able to help them with their marketing strategy and fundraising,” Brock said. “And every day I was there, I was paid by Citizens.”

Since 1994, more than 100 Citizens employees have used the sabbatical program to spend several months working with nonprofits. They’ve lent their business expertise to organizations tackling everything from homelessness to joblessness and illiteracy.

And that’s just one way Citizens is striving to improve the communities where it does business. Employees form teams to help with food drives. Executives serve on nonprofit boards. And corporate grants from Citizens boost dozens of worthwhile causes. The bank long has been recognized for its community spirit.

“It begins with our culture,” said Barbara Cottam, executive vice president and head of corporate affairs. “At Citizens, community means more than just writing a check. It’s about acting, engaging colleagues, participating and leadership.”

Citizens was founded in 1828 as the High Street Bank, and has been headquartered in Providence ever since. Today it is owned by Royal Bank of Scotland PLC and is the ninth-largest bank in the United States, with 1,400 branches and 19,000 employees. Nonetheless, the bank is still very much a local institution with regard to community involvement.

“Our colleagues are at the heart of our commitment to community,” Cottam said. “Larger business-line meetings always include a community-involvement component. We could ask people to donate books or tell them about a group that’s getting together to clean up Galilee beach. People will bring in canned goods for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, or teams might spend time assembling children’s bicycles.

“We’ll match a colleague’s charitable donations up to $1,000 each calendar year. And in addition, if a colleague volunteers at least 50 hours with a nonprofit organization, we’ll contribute up to $250 to the nonprofit of their choice. Last year they volunteered more than 25,000 hours in Rhode Island alone,” she said.

One of the bank’s best known charitable programs – Gear for Grades – involves employees, bank customers and other businesses as well. In summer months Citizens places large bins in bank branches where customers can drop off school supplies. Businesses are encouraged to make bulk donations. Near the end of the summer, employees get together and stuff those materials into backpacks provided by Citizens. The backpacks and supplies are distributed to schools.

People in senior management get involved in the community, too. More than 700 employees – many of them top executives – serve on nonprofit boards. In Rhode Island, 57 Citizens employees serve on boards for more than 80 organizations, including the Olneyville Housing Corp., the Pawtucket Boys & Girls Club, New Urban Arts, Amos House, Home & Hospice Care, the Rhode Island Zoological Society, and the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence.

The bank is generous with its checkbook as well. “We have colleagues who volunteer at shelters, but we also support organizations by contributing funds for housing work,” said Cottam.

Educating people about personal financial management is a top priority for the bank, too. This year Citizens distributed $2 million in grants to help community groups teach personal-finance classes. Among their partners in the effort are Junior Achievement, Crossroads Rhode Island and the Capital Good Fund. The program is expected to reach more than 100,000 consumers by year’s end.

The bank teamed up with the WJAR-TV NBC 10 to establish a program called Champions in Action, which awards a Rhode Island nonprofit with a $35,000 unrestricted grant twice a year. The TV station provides media coverage.

Citizens’ Striking Out Hunger campaign works the same way. Several years ago staff members at the Rhode Island Community Food Bank told bank officials about the frustrations they face in summer months: Citizens teamed up with the Pawtucket Red Sox and Cox Communications to raise awareness of the problem.

“For each strikeout by a Paw Sox pitcher, we donate $75 to the food bank,” said Cottam. “We go as high as $75,000 for the season, and reach that number every year. Over the past six years we’ve donated more than $500,000. But it’s also a great program because it engages other community organizations and lets people know about the issue.”

The bank’s efforts to stamp out hunger in Rhode Island extend to local food pantries, too. “We recently provided McAuley House with a grant to support its Lunch On Us program through the month of November,” said Cottam. “Our colleagues are behind this, too. We have a team going there during their lunch hour to help prepare and serve food.”

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